Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce
Rated R for sci-fi violence,
brief language and some intense images
2 hr., 3 min.

In Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s long-anticipated return to the science fiction genre, the director confronts a philosophical query that has dogged mankind since at least 1995: What if God were one of us?

Not us, exactly, but a bigger, paler, better-sculpted version of us. He appears early on, as a cloaked figure perched at the edge of an Icelandic waterfall. He has a bodybuilder’s physique, the skin tone of a naked mole rat and a glint of the uncanny valley in his eye. In a film orbiting the same existential themes as 2001 — and following the same trajectory, leaping ahead in time several millennia, traveling from prehistoric earth to beyond the stars — he is an ambulatory Monolith, the key to humanity’s total understanding of itself. His DNA is our DNA. We got the pigment, he got the six-pack abs. It’s not a fair evolutionary tradeoff, but it beats coming from monkeys, right?

A think piece on the origins of man probably doesn’t sound much like the Alien prequel you were expecting. After all, that movie didn’t concern itself with much beyond creating a claustrophobic sense of dread, and it was perfect because of it. Well, for one thing, Prometheus isn’t a true prequel. It’s an “expansion of the mythos.” As such, it has mythology on the brain; just look at the title. It’s a much bigger film, visually but also thematically, than the tense 1979 classic that launched Scott’s career. But the heft of its musings cannot weigh down the sheer, stunning spectacle of it all. If anything, the opposite happens. And that’s for the better.

After opening on planet Earth — or, more specifically, like Planet Earth, with breathtaking aerial pans over snowcapped mountains, wide-open vistas and roaring rivers — the movie switches to deep space. Aboard a trillion-dollar spaceship bound for a distant moon, we meet an Aryan cyborg (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender). Ironically, his name is David, but you can call him HAL. While everyone else is in cryogenic deep-freeze, he’s spent the two-year journey studying linguistics, playing lonely games of HORSE and watching Lawrence of Arabia on a continuous loop, to the point of adopting the vaguely homoeroticized mannerisms of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence. As their destination approaches, the crew awakens. There is the scientist couple of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). There is the representative of the corporation funding the mission, portrayed with maximum iciness by Charlize Theron. There is the pilot (Idris Elba) who, as he likes to say, just flies the ship.

There are others, but it’s best not to get too attached. Like its predecessor, Prometheus is fluent in the language of horror, and that means characters venture into dark places, mess with things that shouldn’t be messed with, and generally make terribly unwise decisions. (Important life lesson: If a creature out of H.R. Giger’s most whacked-out Freudian nightmare slithers up from the alien muck, don’t try to touch it.) It gets nasty, too: Rapace’s Shaw — standing in, ably, for Sigourney Weaver’s indelible Ripley — must’ve seen Alien, because once her tummy starts rumbling, she hustles straight to the automated-surgery pod for an emergency caesarian. It resembles one of those claw-crane games from Chuck E. Cheese’s, only with a squirmier, gooier prize.

That is, of course, a refried shock, a remix of a scene that blew minds and lunches three decades ago. But Scott still finds new ways to awe. The movie starts in a cave of forgotten dreams, and it’s worth wondering if Scott took a tip from Werner Herzog’s documentary about the ancient pictograms of France’s Chauvet Cave, in which the German madman embraced 3D as a way of crafting a more tactile viewing experience. With Prometheus, Scott folds in the technology with a similarly subtle hand, using it not to jab the audience in its nose but to make palpable the wonder of discovering a new world and the terror of actually exploring it. It is the grandest example of effects-driven storytelling yet this year.